Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Theology (Page 3 of 24)

Why “God wants the best for you” is hogwash

business-163464_1280God wants the best for you!

If you’ve spent much time in and around evangelical churches, chances are you’ve heard this phrase or some derivative of it on quite a few occasions. Maybe you’re going through a tough time with your health or finances, or perhaps you’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. Whatever the specifics of the situation, when you feel trapped in a corner and everything looks bleak, isn’t it nice and encouraging to be told that God wants the best for you?

While this innocuous-sounding expression is undoubtedly well intentioned and may indeed sound reassuring, if we stop and think for just a moment, it’s easy to see that it masks some quite problematic ideas.

First off, the idea of “best” only really works inside a system of exchange.

If I’m going to be the best in my class, it follows that no one else but me can occupy that top spot. Similarly, in order for me to have an above average income, someone else (or rather a lot of someone elses) has to earn less than the average. Seen from this perspective, the very idea of “best” only makes sense within a hierarchical system. And in any hierarchical system there are inevitably winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless.

It follows from this that we can’t all have “the best”, whatever that might be and in whichever area of life it might apply. Simply put, if we all had “the best”, by definition it would no longer be “the best”; it would simply be the norm or the average.

That being the case, does God perhaps want some people to have the best but not others? Well, Romans 2:11 tells us that God has no favourites. Hmmm.

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Full and free

Freedom

When I was a young Christian, I often used to have a nagging sense that when bad things happened to me, it was because I deserved them. If my car broke down, or some other unforeseen crisis occurred, somewhere in the almost-unconscious regions of my heart, I would wonder which of my particular catalogue of sins had brought this calamity upon me. As a result, I lived under a constant burden of feeling that I needed to up my game and be a better person if I wanted to avoid disaster.

The flip side of this was that when things were going well or when I experienced what is often called “good fortune”, such as a financial windfall or a promotion at work, I would be plagued by a barely perceptible but nevertheless very real sense that I didn’t deserve it. In fact, the more good things came my way, the less I felt I deserved them – and the more I felt I was somehow living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, fate would catch up with me, my luck would run out and I’d get what I deserved.

Living with these kinds of feelings, and the resulting constant sense of unworthiness and foreboding they engendered, did not make me an especially happy bunny.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on some recent events in my life, I had a startling realisation: after thirty plus years as a Christian, and having come to what I thought was a much broader and deeper understanding of God’s love and grace, I am still carrying around some of this baggage even now. Those destructive feelings may not be as strong as they once were; they may be lying low much of the time; but they are still there at some level and able to exert a surprisingly powerful influence as soon as something happens to stir them into life.

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Book review: Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology

Work of TheologyI’m not honestly sure how well known Stanley Hauerwas is here in the UK. He has been referred to as America’s most celebrated living theologian, and has also been described as “one of the world’s most influential living theologians”. Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, and during his illustrious career has penned well over 40 books.

I am mainly aware of Hauerwas because I have a good number of theologically minded American friends. I have The Hauerwas Reader on my shelf and dip into it from time to time, but up to now had not read any substantive work of his from cover to cover. (I had read his Cross-Shattered Christ, but that is a devotional rather than a scholarly work of theology.) Being something of an armchair theologian, when I saw that he had a new book coming out titled The Work of Theology, I was keen to read it to see what useful lessons I could learn from Hauerwas’s long and esteemed career as a theologian and public intellectual.

I suppose I expected this book – just from its title – to be some kind of treatise or gathered reflection on what theology is. On one level, I was disappointed, because the book is a lot more complex than that. But on another level, I was very satisfied: it does indeed act as a kind of survey or primer of theology – what it is, why it matters, and what the theological state of affairs is in the world today – just not in the format I expected.

To structure the rest of this brief review, I’ll describe The Work of Theology using three adjectives: academic, referential and practical.

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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Cognitive dissonance

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The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking.

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Some thoughts on thinking theologically

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In recent years, I’ve become quite passionate about theology. Having recently begun to read Stanley Hauerwas’s latest book The Work of Theology (review to follow in due course), I felt inspired to share a few thoughts about what theology is, or at least what I, from my decidedly amateur perspective, perceive it to be. (I hasten to add that what follows consists solely of my own thoughts, uninformed by dictionary definitions or anyone else’s formal statement of what theology is. So if I say something nonsensical, the fault is entirely mine.)

Semantically speaking, theology is, of course, the study of God. But here we immediately run into a problem, because the very word study for many people implies dusty academic libraries and stacks of impenetrably complex and somewhat abstract books and essays. And study can be these things. But it need not fit the image of tedious labour that it so often attracts. (As for myself, while I’m passionate about theology, I have no formal theological training, though I’d love to remedy this one day, if time and money permit).

I have come to think of theology not just as the study of God in the academic sense but as thinking about God. Not thinking in the way that we might think about that nice holiday we had last summer, or what we might eat for lunch, or how to solve a thorny mathematical problem; rather, theology is deliberate, clear thinking about God.

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Some brief thoughts on fulness of life

The word abundance carved in a log of wood, outdoors on grass and under a cloudy sky

“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
(John 10:10)

This verse, in my experience, surely ranks among the favourite scriptures of contemporary western Christians.

After all, who could not want the abundant life? Who could refuse the promise – from the lips of Jesus, no less – of more and better?

However, call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I see a couple of problems here.

First, our idea of what constitutes the abundant life is substantially influenced by the consumer capitalist culture in which we live. Ask any person in the street – or, more pertinently, in the church – what they understand by the “abundant life”, and chances are they’ll respond with something along the lines of more influence, a better job, more money, more status, more possessions, a bigger house… After all, how can an adjective like “abundant” mean anything other than bigger and better?!

In sum, the culture in which we live has exclusively defined “abundant” as clearly meaning nothing other than more, bigger, and better. And a large section of the church – notably the charismatic and Pentecostal wing thereof – has gone right along with this understanding. What else could Jesus have possibly meant? What else can “blessing” mean other than more money, more health… in short, more power and influence?

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